Matthew Goniwe was so popular among learners in Cradock that when they learnt of the government’s plan to bar him from returning to his teaching post, they went on an indefinite strike demanding his return.
Goniwe had been teaching in Graaff-Reinet, about 150km from his hometown and wanted to return to Cradock to be with his family. The authorities would not allow it and gave him an ultimatum to either return to his post in Graaff-Reinet or consider himself fired.
He defied the ultimatum and was dismissed. The learners joined the respected Science and Mathematics teacher’s battle against the Apartheid authorities by staying away from school. But Goniwe, who always had the best interest of the community and students at heart, tried to persuade the striking learners to return to class. They refused.
Standing for the activist
Goniwe’s former colleague and long-time friend Sizakele John, who was at the centre of the storm, recalled those difficult days. As an inspector at the Department of Education and Training, John trod a fine line when he persuaded his employers to hire the activist who had served a five-year prison term for political activities.
Goniwe was arrested in July 1976 while teaching in the Transkei and was sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of violating the Suppression of Communism Act. He used his time in jail to study and obtained a BA degree through UNISA, majoring in political science and education.
John says on his release, schools in the Eastern Cape were reticent to employ Goniwe out of fear that they would be harassed by the Apartheid government’s Special Branch. But having grown up with him and knowing his prowess as a teacher, John persuaded the Department of Education and Training to give him a six-month trial.
His work was so impressive that even the authorities who frowned upon anyone involved in anti-Apartheid politics recommended that he be appointed principal before the probation period expired. Goniwe did not take up this position.
“He was a great disciplinarian among children and staff. If a member of staff stepped out of line, he would say that this was not what was expected of teachers, we have to be exemplary. And he was the same with the children, he would use corporal punishment if they stepped out of line, but they respected him,” recalls John.
After completing his teacher training in the late 1960s, Goniwe arrived to teach at a school where John was employed as a Maths and Science teacher. John handed over the teaching of the two subjects to Goniwe on the principal’s condition that John, an experienced teacher, would supervise Goniwe’s work.
“As his supervisor, I must be honest, I found him to be very capable, very, very industrious, very serious in his work,” John recalls.
The duo’s friendship transcended beyond the classroom. Goniwe was a popular amateur boxer and political activist while John was an educator and an active leader in the Anglican Church.
A friend in need is a friend indeed
When Goniwe’s political activism got him into trouble with the Special Branch, he counted on the welfare of friends like John to provide him with refuge, but John modestly downplays his role. He says although he assisted Goniwe in those difficult times, it was obvious to everyone looking for Goniwe that they keep an eye on John as they were known to be close.
“I used to help him, to save him from the claws of the police and that type of thing. Although it was worth the trouble, everyone could see through me because we were so close. And that is one of the things that made me unpopular in the department,” he says.
John has the utmost respect for Goniwe. They grew up together on the streets of Cradock’s Lingelihle township. Goniwe’s death in June 1985 left John shattered.
“It really upset me in a way that I cannot describe, I had lost a friend because we were very close to each other, and this was known to his family,” he says.
John says one key lesson today’s generation can take from Goniwe’s life, is a commitment to steer the course.
“What Matthew taught us, is that if you do something for the nation in the interest of the community, you should apply yourself and apply your mind, fully. The lesson that we should take from Matthew is that if you make a decision, or promise to take a job, you must use all your energy, and use every atom in your body to do it to the satisfaction of any reasonable person,” John says.